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The Lioness Reader’s Guide

By Chris Bohjalian

The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian


Note to readers: This Reading Group Guide includes spoilers. Be sure you have finished the novel before diving in.
#1 New York Times bestselling author Chris Bohjalian, whose captivating storytelling has made him a perennial favorite of book clubs, now turns his eye to the Serengeti with The Lioness. It’s 1964, and Hollywood star Katie Barstow is on her honeymoon with David Hill, who is both her new husband and her childhood friend. Eager for adventure, they have brought along an entourage of glamorous guests to join them on safari. Envisioning luxury and safety under the care of local guides—who are known for delivering an experience worthy of Hemingway—the travelers include Katie’s best friend, Carmen Tedesco, and Terrance Dutton, a celebrated Black actor who recently co-starred with her in a film that raised eyebrows. But their holiday soon takes a terrifying turn when a team of Russian mercenaries descends on their caravan, preying on both the Americans and their Tanzanian protectors in a kidnapping plot that goes very wrong.
As this vibrant cast of characters fights for survival, reflecting on the crossroads in their past that led them to this moment, The Lioness raises compelling questions about power and fame, art and artifice, and the illusions woven into each of our identities. We are pleased to provide the following discussion guide, and we hope it will enhance your reading group’s journey through this provocative page-turner.

Guide written by Amy Root Clements

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. What does The Lioness demonstrate about the nature of survival? What role do fate, temperament, life experience, and other factors play in determining the probability of perishing?

2. As you read about the three married couples (David and Katie, Billy and Margie, Felix and Carmen), what did you observe about their relationship styles? Which partnership seemed to be the strongest one? Did the single travelers (Terrance, Reggie, and Peter) have any advantages by being solo?

3. In what ways do Juma, Muema, and Benjamin give voice to multiple generations in the period of sweeping social change in their homeland? How does the concept of wisdom shift as their circumstances change?

4. Are Katie’s wealth and fame worth the price? How does her ability to bankroll the experiences of her guests affect the relationships—romantic, platonic, and familial—she forms with them?

5. How did you react to the scene on page 89 when a lioness preys on a wildebeest? Is the lioness’s behavior much different from that of the kidnappers? If you have housecats, do they share any of the lioness’s traits, or are they more like wildebeests? 

6. How was Terrance’s sense of self transformed by the safari team? Throughout his life, when was he able to feel most at home? When was he forced to play a role, even off-camera?

7. Katie and Billy clearly have different personalities. How did this shape the way they endured their parents’ abuse? How did their childhood prepare them for the tragedies that lay ahead in their adult lives?

8. On page 246, Reggie calls Carmen a lioness, saying it with “reverence and awe.” In what ways does she earn this title? At the same time, does Reggie qualify as a lion?

9. How were your impressions shaped by the shifting points of view that you were able to see across the chapters? As you read about the key turning points in the characters’ life stories, which ones resonated with you the most? Which character would be your favorite traveling companion?

10. In the last line of chapter thirteen, Benjamin says, “I’d rather die charging like a rhino than bleating like a goat.” What does the novel say about the impact of death itself, both on the person (or other creature) who is dying and on those who are left behind in the aftermath?

11. The time period of the early 1960s is itself a character in The Lioness. What are the most beautiful aspects of this liberating character? What fuels the sinister side of that decade? How did shifting attitudes about gender, race, and sexuality make the 1960s an ideal backdrop for Katie Barstow’s tale? 

12. What is the effect of the media snippets at the beginning of the chapters? What is special about the fact that Katie and her entourage are almost all artists in some form? Is their profession a liability or an asset? Which characters are best equipped to cope with the brutal realities of the kidnapping?

13. Much of Chris Bohjalian’s fiction is interwoven with carefully researched historical fact. What did you learn about the history of the Soviet Union, the CIA, and postcolonial Africa by reading The Lioness? What were your initial theories about the motives of the kidnappers in the novel? 

14. How does The Lioness enhance your impressions of previous novels by Chris Bohjalian that you have read? What is unique about his ability to create characters who reveal the complexities of being human? 

Suggested Reading

The Leopard Is Loose by Stephen Harrigan
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
River of the Gods by Candice Millard
Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds by Joy Adamson
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
The Tree Where Man Was Born by Peter Matthiessen
The Measure of a Man: A Memoir by Sidney Poitier
Quant by Quant: The Autobiography of Mary Quant
Imagining Serengeti by Jan Bender Shetler
This Time, This Place by Jack Valenti
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
The Last Place on Earth by Harold T. P. Hayes
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